The Audio Geek!

GtG at Fields

I was fortunate to be invited to an SNA forum Get-to-Gether (GtG, go figure) at Field's house last night.

I had not previously had the pleasure of listening to Field's system comprising Raysonic CD player / transport, North Star DAC (I think),Supratek Sauvignon two-box pre-amp (same model as mine but finished in gorgeous piano black & chrome) and ADAM Gamma fully active speakers. A 5.1 surround sound video system (Marantz Pre & Power Processor, ADAM Center) with an Epson projector and turntable round of 'most' of the visible technology. Sorry if I missed anything! And it is all housed in a tastefully decorated, acoustically treated, dedicated listening room.

If all that wash't enough, Field has SUPERB taste in music with a serious collection of blues, jazz and 'cool' music (think male / female vocals, bass groove,, sax etc) in CD, vinyl and DVD/BD formats.

Fields Screen 2

Also in attendance were LuckyDog, Norpus and Spearmint. So the five of us settled in for a cleansing beverage and pizza and did a little catching up as I hadn't seen a couple of these guys in recent times. Then it was time to fire up the system.

And spectacular it was. Detailed and punchy as needed, soft and delicate when called for. I took a few of my favourite discs along and Shelby Lynne and Geoff Achison sounded as a good as I have ever heard them.

Unfortunately I had to call time on the evening just as the turntable and surround DVDs were firing up. I did catch one DVD, the 2010 Crossroads Blues Festival and the sound and vision of a Gary Clark Jnr track was stunning. I am sure the neighbours enjoyed it as well!

Fields Group

Thanks again for the invite and your generous hospitality Field. I had a ball!

Music purchasing habits

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Probably reflective of the wider community (except those vinyl lovers), I am buying more music downloads than CDs these days. The only CDs I buy now are second hand out-of-print discs, boxed sets, collections and rarities.

When I say music downloads, I really mean high resolution versions where the recording quality / mastering is at a level (or more) above CD quality, and not a lossy MP3 version of CD quality. Therefore, the Apple iTunes Store is not on my purchasing radar.

The reasons for going to high-res digital downloads are pretty clear to me and not limited to the fact that my CD rack is now full!

Whist I have a very good CD player, the mighty Wadia 861SE, the recording quality of the discs are almost not up to quality of the player. Highly compressed music, recorded 'hot' with little dynamic range makes the listening experience not as pleasurable as it could be.

The second reason is portability. Obviously the discs are portable but the Wadia isn't, weighing in at some 22 kilograms. Digital downloads can be played on an iPhone, iPad, iPod, laptop iMac etc, in fact anywhere and on anything that has a headphone socket.

Thirdly, the flip side of point one above, is that much (not all, buyer beware) of the high resolution download material is re-mastered up from 44/16 format found on CDs to 96/24 or higher. The sound has more air, instruments have more separation, and the music tends to flow much more easily. Labels such as Linn Records have outstanding quality recordings even at the 44/24 level, the 'Cover my Blues' album by Pete Alderton is one such fine example. I don't count iTunes downloads as high resolution, even if Apple (and others) tell you that the differences are minimal. Phooey.

And finally, as it seems by my analysis that music downloads are 'better', they are no more expensive and in some cases much cheaper than CDs so that just seals the deal.

So, it sounds perfect right? Well, no so fast. There are plenty of potential gotchas and downsides.

The first is the one that affects all things digital, the lack of tactility. Vinyl records are superb, not just for the sound, but for the feel of the rice paper inner sleeve, the look and feel of the album cover with print you could actually read and as an overall 'thing' it looked and felt substantial. All of the preceding points got dumbed down when the world moved to CD but you still had a tangible 'asset' you could hold after your purchase. Forget all of that with music downloads. Yes, you can download most of the artwork, and some of the liner notes, but depending on your software player, you might not be able to see the cover or read the notes while you are listening.

Music downloads are a bit of a copyright minefield when it comes to lending and sharing your music around. Taking CDs to parties or music get togethers was easy, the portability / format is more tricky with downloads and given some formats it is too easy for 'illegal' copies to be made. So be careful.

As mentioned above, with downloads you don't have anything to hold in your hand as it all resides on your hard drive. And we know what happens to hard drives every now and then don't we? Once downloaded, securing your tracks with adequate backups, offsite storage copies etc is vital or else your growing music download collection can disappear literally in an instant. Most if not all download sites won't replace lost music files. Owner onus applies.

Also, you need to be a bit computer savvy to leverage high resolution downloads effectively. Bit rates, word lengths, DACs, jitter, AES/EBU, gapless playback, hog mode, Toslink, USB, integer mode, up sampling, oversampling, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC etc all need to be understood at some level to know what you are buying into and to maximise the listening experience.

The final limitation of music downloads is lack of variety or range. Various labels are releasing more and more material as high resolution downloads, the back catalog is pretty limited so one needs to search diligently and be prepared to wait until your preferred artists are available. The flip side of this one is, if you are desperate for some new music, you are tempted to try something new and different, often with joyous results. Again, I am discounting iTunes as a source for quality high resolution music downloads.

There you have it. My music buying patterns, pros and cons in a nutshell.

Here is an interesting and useful resource page for high resolution music downloads courtesy of Weiss High End.

New Music, Audirvana Plus and Audioquest Dragonfly

I downloaded some new HD Tracks albums (by Betty LaVette, Nina Simone, Hoff Ensemble) recently and in order to listen to them 'better', I thought a 15 day free trial of the hi-res Mac OS X music player, Audirvana Plus, would be in order on my new MBP-r laptop.

As for the music, I do like the emotion in Bettye LaVette's voice, the Nina Simone album is a 'classic' and I thought I would try The Hoff Ensemble, 'Quiet Winter Night' based on a review from the Audiostream webzine. I don't have a lot of church-recorded folk-influenced Nordic jazz in my collection, so if nothing else it filled a gap! In all seriousness, it is a very nice recording on the 2L label, very spacious with hauntingly sweet, delicate vocals.

Thankful N ThoughtfulI Put A Spell On YouQuiet Winter Night
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Plus I purchased an Audioquest DragonFly USB DAC for mid-fi listening while surfing the web, doing emails etc. The thing is tiny, but weighty with solid build quality and it is really cool how the dragonfly emblem on top changes colour depending on the bit rate of the song being played. Set up was a breeze on the MacBook Pro.

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My review of the Audirvana / DragonFly combo will come once the USB device has been fully run in, allegedly 200 hours according to reports on Head-Fi. Update: Still running in (slowly), only up to around 150 hours so far. I had a quick listen to ALAC tracks with the Alessandros and was quite impressed… More soon.

In the interim, the Audioquest DragonFly product page is here and a short review from 'What Hi Fi?' can be found here.

Bonkers for Boxed Set Bargains!

One thing about being laid up at home is that the Internet is your friend.

Via Acoustic Sounds in the US, I recently found The Beatles Remastered stereo boxed set at approx 50% off Australian RRP, so I took the plunge. Now I know I have most of the original CDs, plus The Beatles Mono Boxed Set plus the hi-resolution Apple USB stick but I can't resist a Beatles bargain. And the sound quality of the 13 studio albums, plus Past Masters is what you would expect. There is bonus 40 minute DVD containing mini-documentaries of the recording of the 13 albums. Excellent!

Beatles Stereo Set

Then this week, an audio buddy calls me to advise that the new Pink Floyd 'Discovery' boxed set, some 14 albums all remastered is available (locally) for half price. While I am not a card-carrying 'Floydy', I do like a couple of their albums and again it is a bargain. The sound quality is reputedly the best so far on CD but I will have a decent listen and share my views later. Also included is a colour 60 page book as well. Done!

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These are on top of last years Bob Dylan Mono Collection and this Christmas's Paul Kelly A-Z recordings. Phew.

Christmas music & audio goodies

No, not the Yuletide stuff, but musical gifts I received for Christmas.

Paul Kelly
First off is an awesome Paul Kelly boxed set, 'The A to Z Recordings'. some 105 tracks all up recorded live over the period 2004 thru 2010 . Beautifully packaged, the songs on the eight disc set are organised alphabetically starting with 'Adelaide' and ending with 'Zoe'.

All Paul Kelly originals plus collaborations, the music is sparse, consisting usually just Paul and guitar / harmonica with other band members sitting from time to time but Paul's songs and his voice are the main event here not lush productions or stage pyrotechnics.

I am enjoying the older / mature Paul Kelly playing much of his back catalog. The sense of history and place, social justice, and humour shine thru most clearly. Perhaps, a Paul Kelly Greatest Hits might suit listeners new to this artist, but for long term fans, this collection is a gem.


Bill Frisell
The second CD gifted was 'All we are saying...' by Bill Frisell.

This is a jazz guitar led set of covers of John Lennon-penned material. Frisell has been an active jazz / session guitarist for many years with a great sense of phrasing and timing. Frisell has been named 'The Most Influential Guitarist of the Last 25 Years' by the Wall Street Journal so he has some serious credibility and chops.

On this disc, Frisell sets to work diligently on respectful interpretations of 16 Lennon songs from the Beatles, Plastic Ono Band and John Lennon solo catalogs.

While I enjoy the recording quality and individual playing on this disc, it feels a little 'studio-session' like to me. A touch sterile on a set of songs that I always felt were meant to be a little grungier and earthier. One exception is a fine version of 'Mother' where emotion pours out in somewhat stark contrast to the other tracks. As a Beatles addict, this album was a must have, and it is worth it for the recording quality alone.

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The final item is a simple Sennheiser headphone holder. Easily clamped to a shelf, desk or equipment rack it is a cheap, portable and effective way to keep your headphones neat and tidy and always at the ready.

In fact, despite their portability, I am thinking about buying another couple of these just to have them where I 'might' listen to my headphone rig.

Highly recommended!